This may never turn into a Rolls Royce
Of course, it was never actually like that in practice, but for politicians keen on expanding the scope and reach of government it was a useful and comforting myth. Attlee's New Jerusalem government reckoned Civil Servants were capable of managing everything from the commanding heights of the economy right through to the allocation of bedpans in their newly nationalised health service. Wilson's government pushed up the proportion of our economy under Whitehall management from 35% to 45%. And we all know what the Blair/Brown government did.
But if your base your approach on a myth you end up with a disaster. And far from settling back in the Connolly leather, ministers spend most of their time flat on their backs under the car wrestling with the transmission.
And this week we've got two very good examples.
First, the latest attempt by a Health Secretary to stop the dysfunctional NHS killing so many of us. The bureaucrats at the Department of Health having failed to come up with anything other than more paperwork, Jeremy Hunt is issuing his own Orders of the Day.
Order Number One. All hospitals and care homes will be officially rated by a the new Chief Inspector of Hospitals.
Order Number Two. Any state healthcare operative who fails to freely confess his own shortcomings will be shot. Well, maybe not shot exactly... but their employing organisation will be given a jolly good talking to.
Order Number Three. Before they qualify, all student nurses must spend a year... well, let's say "up to a year", actually doing some nursing with real patients.
Mmmm... no matter who's sitting in the big leather chair, the NHS just goes on fighting the Battle of Stalingrad. As we've blogged many times (eg here and here), running a huge organisation through top-down orders and fear may have worked for Stalin in 1942, but he wasn't trying to save lives (other than his own of course). In the NHS it's been a total flop: successive Health Secretaries have tried it, and it simply doesn't work.
As for the new Chief Inspector of Hospitals, he's only being introduced because Labour's Care Quality Commission has failed. And the Care Quality Commission itself was only introduced because its predecessor, the National Patient Safety Agency, also failed. A government regulator regulating a nationalised industry is always going to be the public sector marking its own homework. And while the Government Inspector may strike fear into the hearts of employees - witness the hatred of Ofsted among many headteachers - that's because the regulator becomes an instrument of Commissariat control rather than an objective assessor of standards.
And who ever thought it was good idea for nurses to qualify without having a hands-on apprenticeship of feeding and washing patients? When my Mum trained as a nurse back in a flagship pre-NHS hospital, one of her duties was to make sure the patients in her care were eating and drinking properly: years later she still recalled being pulled up by matron for not cutting the crusts off some old boy's sandwiches. It was the Department of Health - miles away from the sharp-end of patient care - that later ruled that wasn't part of a nurse's duties.
Meanwhile our energetic Home Secretary has announced that she's breaking up Labour's useless £1.6bn pa UK Border Agency. The UKBA has become a byword for ineptitude, with among other things, an immigration case backlog well in excess of 300,000 cases.
According to Mrs May, creating this gigantic immigration super-quango may have looked neat on paper but in practice it was disastrous :
"First, the sheer size of the Agency means it has conflicting cultures, and all too often focuses on the crisis in hand at the expense of other important work. Second...UKBA was given agency status in order to keep its work at an arm’s length from ministers. That was wrong. It created a closed, secretive and defensive culture. The new entities will not have agency status and will sit in the Home Office, reporting to ministers."This echoes two points we've long made on BOM - one, that bigger is almost always worse, and two, that delegating power to arms length quangos means rule by bodies unaccountable to anyone, let alone us poor schmucks out here paying for it all.
So good for Mrs May.
But not so good for Mr Hunt.
Because although both of them are attempting to fix the broken old jalopy of of Civil Service management, Mr Hunt ought to be trading it in for a superior model.
With border control Mrs May has little choice but to somehow get her Civil Servants working better: protecting our borders is an essential function of government, and she can't turn it over to others. She has to make it work, however hard that is.
But healthcare is something else entirely. It's not an essential function of government, and Hunt should be learning from the workings of superior systems elsewhere. The European Social Insurance systems put customers in charge via their freedom to choose between competing providers. In all likelihood their Civil Servants are no better than ours at running things, but it doesn't matter because they're not required to do so.
Unless we can shrink government back to its core functions we will never enjoy the standards of service we're already paying for. No matter how hard ministers may try, you simply can't build a Rolls Royce from the bits off an old Austin Allegro.